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A South Sudanese refugee woman stands by a window at a women's center focusing on survivors of gender-based violence, run by the aid group International Rescue Committee, in Bidi Bidi, Uganda, June 2017.
Ben Curtis/AP
Girls & Women

Women & Girls in Conflict Face Widening Gaps in Gender Equality as Rest of World Sees Progress


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When women have equal rights to men, societies are healthier, wealthier, and better educated. The United Nations’ Global Goal 5 aims to achieve gender equality for all women and girls by 2030. You can join us and take action on this issue here

Girls and women who are refugees, displaced, or have been impacted by conflict are falling behind despite progress towards achieving gender equality worldwide, according to a new report.

The humanitarian aid organization International Rescue Committee (IRC) released an analysis on Thursday that outlines how these women have not benefited from global progress towards achieving gender equality since 1995.

That year, thousands of activists convened in Beijing for the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women and set the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action to advance women’s rights. Over two decades later, not a single country is on track to reach the goals set to ensure girls and women can be free from violence, can receive an education, participate in decision-making processes, and earn equal pay. 

Since the Beijing Platform for Action, the number of people who are displaced has increased by 44%, according to the IRC. As the number of refugees continues to increase, and the COVID-19 pandemic stalls progress on gender equality, many women and girls who are refugees, displaced, or who have been impacted by conflict have experienced declines in quality of life. The IRC’s analysis identified a decline in gender parity across several basic needs, including education, health care, and employment. 

“The prevailing narrative is that we have made tremendous strides over a relatively short period of time in accelerating progress for women and girls — which is true in some cases,” Kristin Kim Bart, IRC’s senior director for gender equality, said in a press release issued to Global Citizen.

But Bart pointed out that not all women and girls have benefited from gender equality gains.

“Any time that we talk about or commit to ‘progress for gender equality,’ we need to be explicit about how we are going to include women and girls — in all their diversity — in conflict settings through policy and funding,” she said. “Otherwise, they will continue to be left behind.”

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The IRC analyzed 10 countries where it works that had high populations of refugees and internally displaced people using 12 gender equality markers. 

The organization examined 33 databases and resources from Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand, and Uganda. Limited sex segregated data on the global, country, and population levels were available for the report.

The IRC found that girls and women affected by conflict are experiencing declining school enrollment rates, literacy, and access to birth certificates. Globally, 73% of people are registered at birth, but in Uganda, for instance, more than 67% of people do not have birth certificates. In the DRC, 75% of people do not have birth certificates.

Not having a birth certificate creates several barriers for children, especially girls. Girls without birth certificates can’t access education or health care, and are more likely to be forced into child marriages if they can’t prove their age. 

For women, securing financial services or employment, and inheriting land or other assets are also more challenging without a birth certificate.

Although some countries are falling even more behind in the goal to achieve gender equality, others are seeing improvements in maternal mortality and sexual reproductive health. 

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Maternal mortality rates have decreased by more than 50% in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Pakistan, the IRC found. Contraceptive prevalence has stayed well above the global standard (57.1%), in Thailand and Colombia, and has increased by 365% in Uganda, 98% in Pakistan, 81% in Myanmar, and 42% in Iraq. 

While teen pregnancies have declined by 33% globally, the rate only decreased by 2% in the DRC, 6% in Thailand by 6%, and 8% in Iraq, according to the IRC.

Lack of access to education is especially a risk for girls who are displaced, and gender equality within education systems continues to be a struggle for several countries. If displaced girls are already married, pregnant, or burdened with household chores when they do go back to school, they are less likely to finish.

IRC-Report-Women-Migrants-Refugees-Gender-Equality-Nigeria.jpgA woman and her child walk past the laundry at a camp for displaced people in Maiduguri, Nigeria, August 2016.
Image: Sunday Alamba/AP

Gender parity has increased by 11% in primary and secondary school enrollment on a global scale and the global average has reached “perfect parity,” according to the IRC. Afghanistan, Ethiopia, the DRC, Iraq, Uganda, Nigeria however, have still not reached this standard.

When it comes to literacy, more women than men have become literate in the past 25 years, but, in Myanmar, female literacy has decreased overall, the IRC found. Iraq, Uganda, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan have also never achieved the global average literacy rate (86%).

The prevalence of gender-based violence is difficult to assess due to unavailable data, but the IRC found that Afghanistan had the highest increase in domestic violence since 1995 at 46%, compared to 40% in Ethiopia, and 37% in the DRC. 

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The IRC also found that child marriage was highest in countries that are unstable or very unstable. Nigeria had a 43% child marriage rate, Ethiopia had a 40% rate, and the DRC had a 37% rate. 

Lastly, social attitudes around gender-based violence also have not improved in several countries. The number of women in Colombia, the DRC, and Pakistan who believe “wife beating” is justified has not declined, and women in the DRC were most likely to support the form of abuse, according to the IRC.

Ahead of the Decade of Action to meet the Global Goals, the IRC is calling for more policy and funding commitments that directly address girls’ and women’s needs and ensure they aren’t left behind. By presenting an analysis of the state of gender equality in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries, the IRC is urging the international community to step up for women and girls. 

IRC-Report-Women-Migrants-Refugees-Gender-Equality-Iraq.jpgSyrian women walk through the Kawergosk refugee camp in northern Iraq, at dusk on in April 2017.
Image: Felipe Dana/AP